The science behind why people stop (and block) doorways

TRAIN doorway_LEAD
TRAIN doorway_LEAD

If you’re in ‘back to commute’ mode after the school break, you might have started to notice something strange. Picture the scene: your train chugs into the platform, you’re queued up nicely behind a fellow passenger all ready to board (or indeed, get off). And then… they DON’T MOVE. They’re stuck, frozen like a zombie between the doors. None shall pass. This, despite the fact that the train isn’t even crowded and the static offender isn’t looking at their phone. What’s going on?

Welcome to the ‘doorway effect’ – the term used by neuroscientists to describe the sudden, unexplained trance at what they call an ‘event boundary’. It’s caused by a sudden loss in spatial awareness brought on by a change in our surroundings. It happens when we move between places without putting any effort in (unlike when we drive, say). Because of that passive zone-out, our brains can require a ‘location-update’ and reboot upon our arrival at a new destination or ‘event boundary’. Have you also been stuck behind a commuter who suddenly freezes at the top or bottom of an escalator? Or seen someone go into a room and forget what they came in for? It’s the same effect.

“It’s actually not so much the doorway by itself that causes forgetting, but more about the change of environment,” says Dr Jessica McFadyen, a neuroscientist at University College London, who co-authored a 2021 study of the effect. “Imagine you are in a shopping centre. Taking the lift from the car park to a retail level [which look dissimilar in appearance] is likely to lead to more forgetting than simply taking the lift between two retail levels.”

“Our results also suggest that the more we multitask, the more likely our memory will be flushed out by doorways,” says McFadyen. “When we’re distracted by thoughts about other things, our working memory can more easily become overloaded.”

We are particularly susceptible to the doorway effect in darkness (such as the underground), adds Dr Sam Gilbert, who also works as a neuroscientist at UCL. This is because there is little variety in journeys that take in visually similar stations interspersed only by blackout.

“With the Tube, there are very few specific cues that separate one station from another one,” he says. “They all kind of look the same and that makes it harder to remember your intention and memories at a particular station.”

The science of different locations

The ‘doorway effect’ has been observed in multiple studies. By setting up experiments where participants have to move between rooms and memorise a number of items in each, academics at the universities of Stirling and St Andrews in Scotland, and at Notre Dame in the US, have each identified that moving between different locations can confuse the brain.

This is because it emulates the process in which the brain archives memories, which involves splitting the experiences, events and emotions of our lives into segments on the basis of differences between them in place or time. Arriving at a new station emulates this, and the brain can sometimes consequently mistake the immediate past for a memory that needs to be put away in our long-term memory bank. So when we arrive at a station, our awareness of the impending need to move off the train may have been wiped away – therefore causing us to freeze until the brain reboots.

The effect can be neutralised when we maintain awareness of our surroundings
The effect can be neutralised when we maintain awareness of our surroundings – and avoid mindlessly scrolling - DANIEL LEAL

Walking into a room and forgetting what you were there for is an even more common experience. “Remembering often depends on our memories being triggered or cued by something,” Gilbert explains. “You might see someone’s face and use that to search your memory for their name, or you have a particular experience and that reminds you of another one. When you walk into a room because you intended to do something, you don’t have that cue to remind you of what you intended, so it has to be generated internally. That is the key difficulty.”

The best course of action

However common it may be, the frustration of getting blocked by a train passenger in a trance, or encountering an escalator pile-up, remains. There is often little option but to politely – or impolitely – jolt someone experiencing the doorway effect out of it by asking them to move. Loudly.

“I would think we should respond kindly, because it is quite a common experience for all of us,” laughs Dr Gilbert when I ask if it is socially acceptable to shout people out of their immobility. “It might be someone else annoying us by standing in our way today, but it could be us tomorrow.”

There is, however, more you can do if you know you yourself are liable to it. The effect can be neutralised when we maintain awareness of our surroundings, focus solely on the task at hand and keep the object we want to fetch from a different room – or the thing we need to do on arrival – at the front of our minds.

The key is to minimise idle, low-level distractions – from noise-cancelling headphones and mindless scrolling to daydreaming – as we walk from one room to another.

And the one thing you should not do when hit with a bout of forgetfulness is to think intensely about what you have forgotten. “This can make it worse because whatever it is that is blocking your memory is reinforced by thinking even harder about it,” Gilbert says. “Sometimes what can be better is to go away, not think about it and clear your mind. Then you will often find that the memory will pop into your mind at another time.”

It is handy advice, if only one could be sure to remember it.

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